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Befitting a man as wonderfully strange as Harry Houdini (born Erik Weisz in Budapest in 1874), History’s Houdini miniseries is a curious carousel of the magician’s life, guided by a frizzy-haired, exuberant and bulked-up Adrien Brody.
Framed by a death-defying feat that has Houdini’s life flashing before him, Houdini quickly advertises all that will be revealed over the course of four hours (split into two parts). And reveal it does, taking an unorthodox approach that weaves in surreal and psychological elements, zooming camerawork, frenetic editing, a modern soundtrack and some well-placed animation to illustrate how Houdini’s tricks worked.
Adapted by Nicholas Meyer from the 1976 book Houdini: A Mind in Chains: A Psychoanalytic Portrait (written by his father, Bernard C. Meyer), the miniseries also embraces the fictional by having Houdini narrate via a voiceover that features knowing eye-rollers like: “I would come home but, I’m all tied up.”
Under the direction of Uli Edel (who made 2008 foreign-language Oscar nominee The Baader Meinhof Complex), that voiceover ties together what is otherwise a fast-paced, somewhat scattered storytelling showcase of Houdini’s evolving tricks and trade, as the magician improves his act and grows ever more daring. Many of his most well-known stunts are shown, including the Vanishing Elephant and the Chinese Water Torture Cell, which Brody acts out with infectious zest, fully embracing the part of showman.
Punctuating those tricks are ups and downs in his marriage to wife, Bess (a lovely Kristen Connolly), and episodes that illustrate his dependence on his mother, Cecilia (Eszter Onodi). The miniseries also touches briefly on his shows in Europe — alongside right-hand man Jim Collins (Evan Jones) — during which he meets Kaiser Wilhelm II (Gyula Mesterhazy) and Tsar Nicholas Romanov II (Simon Nader). Speculation that Houdini worked as a spy is presented here as fact, and the showman is seen predicting the Russian Revolution (one of several winking, and mostly unnecessary, historical additions).
Houdini becomes more linear in part two as it chugs along toward Houdini’s final works — and early demise — in a way that feels thematically and visually removed from part one. The focus shifts to personal tragedy, as well as Houdini’s singular obsession with debunking mediums and spiritualists, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s wife.
The magician himself once said, “No performer should attempt to bite off red-hot iron unless he has a good set of teeth” — and the maxim is in many ways applicable to this miniseries. Houdini takes a big bite, and its journey is often fun and fantastical, but its goofy sensibilities would have benefited from a sturdier structure, and what it wants its audience to take away from its subject’s life story is unclear.
That said, the miniseries nails the most important thing: spectacle. Edel’s refreshingly dynamic direction and Brody’s buoyant performance allow Houdini’s tricks to retain their wonder, even for the jaded modern viewer. That’s a magical feat indeed.
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